Al Ahly coach Manuel Jose has admitted ahead of a crucial CAF Champions League clash with Mouloudia Alger in Egypt on Friday that a record seventh title may be beyond his weary, ageing squad.
The Portuguese with the midas touch has guided the Red Devils to glory four times in the premier Pan-African club competition by building teams around stars like goalkeeper Essam al-Hadary, defender Wael Gomaa and midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika. Al-Hadary now plays his club football in neighbouring Sudan, Gomaa can be exposed by swift strikers and Aboutrika is prone to injury and no longer able to dominate the middle of the pitch.
"My best players are getting older and we are not as powerful as in previous years," admitted the coach who began a third spell at the club this year and led them to a seventh consecutive Egyptian title.
Ahly have also been unlucky with creative midfielder Mohamed Barakat missing a home draw with Wydad Casablanca of Morocco and away loss to Esperance of Tunisia after breaking an arm when accidentally hitting a hotel chair.
The domestic unrest in the country last February halted local football and clubs later had to fulfil a breathtaking fixture schedule to catch up. Jose says his team were worn out by the end of the championship and had virtually no rest before launching a Champions League Group B campaign against Wydad with untypical defensive blunders costing them maximum points.
Mouloudia have also collected a solitary point from two outings with close-season player and coaching changes adversely affecting a club thumped 4-0 in Casablanca two weeks ago. "The group phase kicked off at a bad time for North African clubs as we are between seasons and our inadequate fitness was brutally exposed by Wydad," new Mouloudia coach Abdelhak Meguellati confessed.
While Ahly and 1976 champions Mouloudia chase a win that would keep them in contention for a top-two finish and a semi-finals slot, goal-hungry Wydad host defensively strong Esperance on Sunday. Wydad have struck 10 goals in their last three African outings with Mouhssine Iajour and Congo-born Fabrice Ondama among the leading Champions League scorers while Esperance have conceded only three in six qualifying and group matches.
Enyimba of Nigeria - one of only three teams to successfully defend the title since its 1964 inception - and twice runners-up Al-Hilal of Sudan have set the Group A pace with four points each. Both enjoy home advantage on Sunday with Enyimba facing goal-shy Raja Casablanca of Morocco in south-eastern city Aba while Hilal confront 2008 runners-up Cotonsport Garoua of Cameroon in sauna-like Omdurman.
Uche Kalu could pose the biggest threat to three-time African champions Raja after bagging a brace in Garoua, while Cotonsport must contain Zimbabwean Edward Sadomba after he scored three times in two group matches.